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Senate Democrats’ All-Nighter Flags Climate Change

By Coral Davenport (The New York Times) - March 11, 2014

In the summer of 2010, it was Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader, who squelched his party’s efforts to pass a climate change bill, declaring it could never attract enough votes to pass. In the years since, he has rarely spoken publicly about the issue.

But on Monday night, an impassioned Mr. Reid took to the Senate floor to kick off a nearly 15-hour climate-change talkathon by about 30 Senate Democrats, part of a campaign by a new Senate “climate caucus” to make it a politically urgent issue.

“Climate change is real. It’s here,” Mr. Reid said, adding that it was time to stop acting as if those who ignore it “have a valid point of view.”

“They don’t,” he said.

The all-night session was the latest effort by the group, which is working with a parallel House caucus, to elevate the issue of global warming. The members know that serious climate change legislation stands no chance of passage in this divided Congress, where many lawmakers in the Republican-majority House deny the science of human-caused global warming.

Climate caucus members say their objective is to raise the urgency of global warming and build toward a time when the political landscape may have shifted enough that a bill could pass. They argue that there are signs that the political winds may already be changing.

“It’s aimed toward the day when something more concrete can be legislated,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, a veteran of climate and clean-energy policy battles.

In addition to Monday’s overnight session, members of the group give regular speeches on the floor of the House and the Senate about the urgency of fighting climate change. They hold weekly meetings with environmentalists, lobbyists and some corporate leaders who support their policies. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and a leading member of the caucus, is planning a trip to Iowa centered on events related to climate change, in the hope of elevating the issue before the 2016 presidential caucuses.

Among the biggest recent changes is the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars to support candidates who make climate change a priority. The California hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to spend up to $100 million in this year’s midterm elections to help elect candidates who support strengthened climate policy. His infusion has helped lead to the rise of what advocates call “climate candidates” — mainstream politicians who make climate change a central issue of their platform.

“Climate change is the defining issue of our generation,” Mr. Steyer said in a statement praising the senators who were planning to talk all night.

David Axelrod, a former political adviser to President Obama and part of a team that had advised him to keep quiet on climate change during the 2012 campaign, said it was gaining momentum as a political issue because of donors like Mr. Steyer. The frequency of extreme weather events is also a factor, he said.

Other Democrats are also talking more about the issue. Mr. Obama has given a series of speeches on the topic and plans to issue a set of climate change regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency.

A rising class of younger senators has also begun embracing climate change as an issue, among them Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, both Democrats.

“We’re not going to rest until there is action on the most pressing issue of our time, which is climate change,” Mr. Schatz said.

He played a central role in organizing Monday night’s event. Operating out of a war room near Mr. Reid’s offices, Mr. Schatz and his staff helped ensure that the senators had everything they needed to make it through the long night. Included were thick binders of talking points, as well as plenty of charts, graphs and visual aids, like Senator Mark Udall’s poster of raging wildfires in his home state, Colorado. There was a detailed schedule, with Mr. Schatz planning to speak in 30-minute blocks spread throughout the night and totaling five hours. He brought Hawaiian Kona coffee and macadamia nut chocolates to help fuel his colleagues’ overnight slog.

Still, no legislation will pass without Republican support, or enough support from moderate Democrats in states where fossil fuels are a vital part of the economy. None of the four most vulnerable Democratic incumbent senators in the midterm elections — Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — were to take part in Monday night’s event. Mr. Begich, Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Pryor are from states where oil or gas production is a major part of the economy.

The fact remains that any major climate law will probably curb production of fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases, particularly coal. The Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a state where coal is crucial to the economy, was fiercely critical of the Democrats’ session.

“Families are losing work because of government attacks on the coal industry. Communities are hurting,” he said in a statement. “And tonight you’re going to hear 30 hours of excuses from a group of people who think that’s O.K. Well, it’s not O.K.”

“It’s cruel to tell struggling coal families that they can’t have a job because some billionaire from San Francisco disagrees with their line of work,” he added.

Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist with close ties to House Republican leaders, said that while Mr. Markey’s strategy might have worked on the fuel economy legislation, it would be difficult to translate that strategy to the broader and more politically contentious issue of climate change.

“Ed Markey is a really smart guy, and he’s right, policy happens when the ground’s been prepared and the moment is correct,” Mr. McKenna said. “But I think he’s barking up a completely different tree.”